For almost as long as this blog has existed, I have criticized lazy therapists for jumping on the empathy train. It’s easier to feel someone else’s feelings than to think through a problem and arrive at ways to manage or even solve it.
In fact, I even made the case against empathy in my book The Last Psychoanalyst. Now, I am delighted to see that science has arrived at similar conclusions, though perhaps for different reasons. Witness the work of Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, dutifully reported on this blog last year. Link here.
More recently, Bloom presented the case against empathy at the Aspen Institute. Some of the points he made there are new. The others deserve repeating.
Bloom even explains that empathy is, for all intents and purposes, a character flaw:
Empathy is a documented psychological phenomenon: If you see someone else poked in the hand, Blum said, your own pain centers in the brain will light up. And scientists have demonstrated that you’re more likely to help someone whose pain you feel. The problem, as Blum sees it, is that “because of its focusing properties, [empathy] can be innumerate, parochial, bigoted.” People are often more empathetic toward individuals who resemble themselves, a fact that can exacerbate already-existing social inequalities. And empathy can cause people to choose to embrace smaller goods at the expense of greater ones. "It's because of the zooming effect of empathy that the whole world cares more about a little girl stuck in a well than they do about the possible deaths of millions and millions due to climate change,” Blum said.
[Yes, I have noticed that the Atlantic has used two alternate spellings of Bloom’s name. This is sloppy copy editing. One trusts that it will soon be corrected.]
Here one feels some chagrin to see that Bloom feels a need to offer up one of the dogmas of the Church of the Liberal Pieties. By comparing the plight of a girl stuck in the well with possible (not actual) deaths caused by climate change, he has, as they say, jumped the shark. Why not speculate about the deaths that would be caused by a shutdown of the energy grid or the abolition of air conditioning.
The majority of climate scientists do believe that the climate is changing; the climate is always changing. They do not believe that industry is causing the change and they do not believe that the change is especially dangerous.
Those who promote empathy derive their idea from the observation that psychopaths suffer from a deficit of fellow-feeling. Thus, these criminals happily kill, maim and mutilate their victims without a second thought. They have added that empathy is a cure-all for human aggression. If we feel everyone else’s pain, we will overcome our aggressiveness and become delicate flowers. Violence will be a thing of the past. Of course, at that point those who missed out on the therapeutic purge of their aggressiveness will quickly discover how easy it is to exploit those who have not.
For his part Bloom makes a more interesting point. Empathy can cause people to commit heinous acts of violence:
Empathy can also make people do evil. “Atrocities are typically motivated by stories of suffering victims—stories of white women assaulted by blacks, stories of German children attacked by Jewish pedophiles," Blum said. It also can lure countries into violent conflicts based on relatively small provocations, and researchers have shown that people who are more empathetic are more likely to want to impose harsh punishments on people. “The more empathy you have, the more violent you are—the more ready and willing you are to cause pain,” Blum said.
Why should this be? Allow me a speculation. Since empathy is a feeling there is no way of knowing whether anyone has it or does not have it. If you want to show how deeply you feel for the downtrodden you will need to demonstrate it through actions. You will want to join a group that dedicates itself, in the name of justice, to punishing all of those who have oppressed or persecuted a certain group of people.
Since therapists have glorified the importance of empathy—as I said, it beats thinking—one might imagine that it is an important instrument of cure. Yet, Bloom, like yours truly, does not believe that a patient gains anything from knowing that his therapist feels his pain.
In Bloom’s words:
And in the professions centered around helping others, empathy can be a burden, leading to burnout and incompetence caused by emotional contagion. “When I go to my therapist, I want her to understand me and I want her to make me better,” Blum said. “But if I’m going, ‘I’m anxious and depressed!’ I don’t want her going, ‘I’m anxious and depressed!’”
The point has been reported before, but it certainly bears repeating. When you feel that you cannot accomplish a task you do not want your therapist feeling the same way. What good does it do you to know that he feels like he cannot accomplish the task either or that he cannot help you to attack it?
Similarly, if you are involved in a competition—like a tennis match—your sensitivity to the pain you want to inflict on your opponent will make you less of a competitor.
Bloom suggests that in place of the ill deeds that empathy provokes, we do better, if we feel for the poor, not to give to beggar children but to donate to associations that help the indigent. Clearly, this is correct. Better to allow your mind to lead your heart, and not vice versa.
He might have mentioned the virtue of enacting economic policies that promote economic growth and that provide employment for the parents of these beggar children, thus rendering it unnecessary for them to beg.
Empathy-mongering therapists believe that human relationships involve sharing feelings. I have already discussed the trouble with this piece of specious reason in my book.
For today, examine Bloom’s view:
At the end of the Aspen session, an audience member posed a scenario to the scientists: What if she was fired from her job, and her partner offered her a back rub and kind words but didn’t truly get why she was upset? Wouldn’t the comfort feel hollow, useless?
“What you’re really asking for is compassion plus understanding,” Blum replied. “Suppose you feel humiliated. I don’t think it’s what you want or what you need for your partner to feel humiliated. You want your partner to understand your humiliation and respond with love and kindness. I think for your partner to feel humiliated would be the worst thing you want. Because now, you have to worry about your partner’s feelings.”
On the question of feeling humiliated, I agree with Bloom that the one thing you do not want when you have been fired is empathy. You do not want your partner to feel your humiliation, to share your pain.
I would add that, as a general rule, when you discover someone who has been humiliated or who has lost face your first impulse will be to cover his or her shame. If a man is lying unconscious on the ground in a position that exposes his private parts, you will first cover him up… even before you assess the situation and call for help.
Covering another person’s shame is an action, not an emotion. You do it because you do not want to share the emotion of humiliation.
In the example reported, the woman feels that something is wrong because her partner offers her a back rub. Note, that politically correct grammar makes it impossible to know the gender of said partner or the nature of their relationship.
No wonder she does not feel very good.
One does not know the role that back rubs play in their relationship, but at the very least we do know that one normally receives a back rub in a state of undress. Within some intimate relationship a back rub might well constitute foreplay.
So, the woman has been fired from her job and her partner’s initial response is: take off your shirt and lie down on your stomach… in a defenseless position.
It is fair to say that said partner has offered precisely the wrong response. Partner has invited the humiliated partner to double down on the humiliation.
What is the right response when your partner has lost her job? Obviously, it depends on why she has lost her job: whether she failed at a task, never showed up on time, was the victim of corporate downsizing or rejected the amorous advances of a superior.
We do not know, so we will not speculate.
In most cases, the correct emotional response, the one that is best designed to help one’s partner overcome the humiliation associated with job loss is to express anger at the injustice of it all. Getting angry at the boss allows your partner to feel that she has not failed, but that someone has failed her. It may not be the whole truth, but it covers up some of the shame.
Next, one needs to help one’s partner to recover her confidence and self-respect, perhaps by saying that a world of other opportunities awaits her. One might even make the effort to try to contact some friends and colleagues to see what one can rustle up. Offering to participate actively in the job search shows more confidence than a heartfelt expression of concern, unaccompanied by any action.